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Highlanders cap tough season with hardware

No sport does side competitions quite like soccer. Manchester United didn’t win the Champions League this year, but still captured the Europa League.
No sport does side competitions quite like soccer.

Manchester United didn’t win the Champions League this year, but still captured the Europa League. Defender Adam Straith of Victoria and the Canadian national team were eliminated from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but are still in the hunt for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers of the MLS vie for the side-deal Cascadia Cup.

The Victoria Highlanders are going nowhere near the post-season this year in the USL Premier Development League, but they still got to celebrate a championship Sunday at Centennial Stadium. The Highlanders defeated TSS Rovers of Burnaby to hoist the Juan de Fuca Plate, the supporters-based championship that goes to the winner of the season series between the two B.C. teams in the PDL Northwest Division.

The Highlanders got goals from Paddy Nelson and Stuart Heath, and clean-sheet goalkeeping from Ty Venhola in his first start, and won the rubber match 2-0 against last-place TSS (2-8-3) to capture the three-game season series against the Rovers 2-1.

“We’ve been somewhat unfortunate and unlucky this season. But winning this [Juan de Fuca Plate] gives us a bit of a lift,” said Victoria captain Ryan McCurdy.

But that’s about the only hardware the Highlanders (4-8) will lift this season.

“We’ve lost some close games in the late minutes and it was always our own mistakes that got punished,” noted McCurdy, the Belfast native, who played for Vic West in the VISL.

The team knows it needs to get better for next season.

“There is a reason 70 per cent of the players taken in the MLS draft have played in the PDL . . . we see it every week . . . the teams we play against are very good,” said Highlanders GM and co-owner Marvin Diercks.

“This is not a glorified Pacific Coast Soccer League or Vancouver Island Soccer League. There is nothing better in North America at the amateur U-23 level than the PDL. That is recognized in the U.S., but I don’t think people get that here.”

Highlander attendance has suffered this season along with the on-field results.

“It’s been a frustrating year at the gate, and the gate is essential to us,” said Diercks.

He said average home attendance is about 250 and “we need another 600.”

“There are 15,000 registered soccer players on the Lower Island, 10,000 youth and 5,000 adult, and we need to tap into that. This is the best amateur soccer we can offer fans to watch in this part of the world,” added Diercks.

He said the Highlanders annual operating budget is about $100,000 a season and quickly confirmed: “We will be back next year.”

“And this has been a positive year in many ways. We expanded our Pacific Coast League [feeder] team and also our 16-17 futures program. We are building a club. We are going to see more homegrown players from our club system make the Highlanders PDL roster in the future.”

The Highlanders close out the home portion of the 2017 PDL season Friday night at Centennial Stadium against third-place Seattle Sounders U-23 (6-5-1). The last Victoria game of the season is Sunday in Calgary against the Northwest Division-leading Foothills (8-2-3).